Wright Brothers   [Orville, 1871-1848; Wilbur 1867-1912]


Orville [top] and Wilbur [bottom] Wright

Wilbur and Orville Wright were, and are generally recognized as, the first successful designers and developers of the airplane as we know it today. The reason this needs to be stated at this point is because there were, and probably still are, several claims that other pioneers had flown before the Wright brothers made their first flight.

To be sure the brothers were not the only ones experimenting with flight during the years leading up to their first manned and powered flight in 1903. In 1896, Smithsonian Institution Secretary Samuel Langley flew an unmanned steam-powered model aircraft. Also during that same year, 1896, Chicago engineer and experimenter Octave Chanute began testing various types of gliders in the sand dunes of the Lake Michigan shore. As a result of these glider experiments, Otto Lilienthal was killed in the crash of a glider.

But the dedication to experimentation and persistence over a period of several years set the Wright brothers apart from the other experimenters. In 1892, the two Wright brothers had begun a bicycle manufacturing factory to respond to the then bicycle craze. They had been quite successful, and did not really begin flight experimentation until 1899, when Wilbur wrote a letter to the Smithsonian Institution for information and publications on aircraft and aeronautics. He was able to obtain information on the previous work that had been done by Langley, Chanute, Lilienthal and others. Also the published work of Leonardo Da Vinci was useful to the early flight experimenters.

So in late 1899 the Wright brothers began their flight experimentation. As others had done before them they initially focused on glider design. But they also differed from the others by not focusing on powered gliders, but on the efficient design of the glider surfaces and on control of the glider.

The brothers also decided to do their experimentation at a windy location and found that Kitty Hawk, North Carolina would provide the best wind conditions for glider testing. While there they also found that a wind tunnel would help them in their wing development and testing because it provided them with control of the wind speed. They apparently were one of the first users of a wind tunnel for flight experimentation and design.

As early as the year 1900, only one year after entering the aeronautic development field, they were testing manned gliders. To be sure the manned flight tests were usually brief and remained close to the ground, but their focus was on efficient glider surfaces and on glider control. Along the way of the development process they found that a control system giving control along several axes was necessary for flight.

Based on what they had learned from their experimentation in 1900, they built a much larger glider in 1901 and made between 50 and 100 flights for distances from 20 to 400 feet. But there were still many problems with controlling the gliders.

In the next year, 1902, they discovered that the three-axis control system was the only way to achieve control of the glider. And that year was a critical year because they had known all along that before powered flight could be safely attempted, control of the machine had to be dependable. So at the end of their development and testing in 1902, they knew that they could begin the development of their powered flight machine.

The year 1903 would be the year to do their testing of powered flight but they first had to build the powered plane including the engine. They attempted to find a gasoline engine, but all the gasoline engines that were then available were too heavy, or had other problems that precluded their use. So they decided to design their own engine with the help of their machining expert, Charles Taylor [1868-1956]. Taylor had been working with the Wright brothers for years during their bicycle manufacturing operations and he was one of the best engineering technicians in their employ.

So using the expertise of their machine shop, the brothers were able to design and build an aircraft engine which put out 12 horse power but only weighed 180 pounds. To keep the weight of the aircraft to a minimum the brothers even used aluminum castings for some parts of the engine. Aluminum casting is difficult at present but especially so in 1902. The brothers also designed the fuselage for the aircraft. They made extensive use of spruce for the frame and cloth for the wing surfaces. And of course they also had to design the propeller for driving or pulling the aircraft through the air.

It is amazing but they were able to get all the work done in one year, and by the end of 1903, the plane was ready to attempt a test flight. The aircraft had a wing span of 40 feet, weighed 605 pounds, and cost about $ 1000. Although $ 1000 in 1903 was a lot of money it was a small amount considering what the brothers were able to achieve.

So at the end of 1903, the plane was ready to be tested. But the weather had to be ideal, and the first opportunity to test the plane did not occur until December 17, 1903. But on that day, the Wright brothers were able to make three test flights. The first flight with Wilbur at the controls covered 120 feet. The next one with Orville at the controls covered 175 feet, and the last one covered 200 feet. Each flight reached an altitude of about 20 feet. Few people were present at this historic event. Fortunately there was one person with a camera who was able to record the flights.

Following the successful day of motorized flight testing, the brothers called their father in Dayton, Ohio, and asked him to publicize the event to the local news media. But no one in the media was interested. The historic nature of the event was not yet on the radar screen of the media, until later.

Following their successful flight the brothers decided to apply for a patent for the Wright flying machine. But their first request was rejected for lack of proof that an actual flight took place. But they persisted, and in 1906 a patent was granted to the Wright brothers for their flying machine.

During the years following their first flight in 1903, the brothers continued to improve their design, and made improvements to the point that in 1905 they were able to build a vastly improved airplane which was able to make a flight lasting more than half an hour at a time.

Several years later, in 1908, at a demonstration for the United States Army, the brothers were able to fly one of their air planes for over an hour. And that show of flight performance convinced the United States Army that air planes would be part of the future of military defense, and the army ordered a number of the Wright air planes. Also in that same year, in 1908, Wilbur made over 100 flights near Le Mans, France, to demonstrate their aircraft to several European governments. One of the flights set a record of staying aloft for 2 hours and 19 minutes.

By the year 1910, the Wright brothers had been able to achieve recognition that air flight was part of the future. I doubt if any one at that time realized how important flight would be in the relatively near future. During the First World War, from 1914 to 1918, air power had become an important part of defense and warfare.

In 1909 the Wright brothers organized the American Wright Aircraft Corporation as the vehicle to build and do future development and design of general use aircraft. Through the Wright Aircraft Corporation they were able to concentrate their achievements in aircraft design and development in one organization. Only a few years following their successes, in 1912, one of the Wright brothers, Wilbur, succumbed from a bout of typhoid fever and passed away. He was only 45 years old at the time.

Orville Wright, the younger of the two brothers, continued with the Wright Aircraft Corporation until 1915, when he sold his interest in the American Wright Aircraft Company. But he continued as director of the Wright Aeronautical Laboratory in Dayton, Ohio. In that same yea, Orville was also appointed to the United States Naval Consulting Board. And in 1920, Orville was appointed to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Orville lived a reasonably long life. He passed away in 1948, at the age of 77.

The Wright brothers had solid Dutch backgrounds through the paternal side. Their paternal grandmother was named Catherine Reeder, a solid Dutch name. Catherine’s parents were George Reeder and Margaret Van Cleve, both from solid Dutch background.

What not many people are aware of is the fact that the two Wright brothers only had minimal education and training. Neither one graduated from high school, although Wilbur completed high school but never officially graduated because the family had moved prior to graduation. Orville dropped out of high school while he was still a junior. But the two brothers grew up in a household where reading and knowledge was considered important. So we must assume that not all learning takes place in schools.

Also the two brothers were quite entrepreneurial. Orville had become interested in printing and had started a printing and publishing business while he was still young. Wilbur joined him in the business. But when the bicycle became the rage in the 1880’s, the two brothers decided to go into the bicycle manufacturing business, manufacturing  their own brand of bicycle, a business in which they became quite successful. And the bicycle business is what propelled them later in the aircraft design and development business. So it is clear that the two brothers had been able to educate themselves quite well even with only a minimal formal education.

The Wright Brothers claim of being the first to fly a motorized airplane in 1903 has been challenged by others, who have claimed to have flown a motorized airplane prior to the first Wright Brothers flight in 1903. The only claim that may have some validity is the one made by supporters of the alleged motorized flights by Gustave Whitehead [1874-1927], made in 1901 and 1902. Even if Whitehead was successful at flying a motorized craft before the Wright Brothers, his alleged flights had little documentation or observation by outside parties. To be sure a number of testimonies to confirm the alleged motorized flights by Gustave Whitehead are on record.

Even if the Whitehead allegations are true, the contributions by the two Wright Brothers are much more significant to the birth of motorized flight than their first motorized flight in 1903. The Wright Brothers did an enormous amount of research in the dynamics of flight, and recorded those for future designers and developers of aircraft. Very little of what Whitehead may have done has been recorded, or has been useful to designers and developers of aircraft.



The references for the above information have been gleaned from the numerous web sites devoted to the Wright Brothers and to the early birth of gliders and motorized flights. These web sites are widely available to the public, are frequently updated and revised and therefore will not be listed here.























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